Reasons

I have been remiss. Already. And during National Poetry Month, of all months. But…there are reasons. Some positive reasons; some negative; some just…reasons. But I have been writing. I am 18/23 in an attempted 30/30 for April, I have finished two book reviews, and spurred on by a request from a journal I love, finally completed an essay that I have been thinking about writing for months. The poem drafts are stronger than I imagined they would be, assuaging some of my fears about having lost my poetry mojo.

Reading books of poetry has been a big part of my little sabbatical. In no particular order, digging in to these collections has brightened, enriched, and inspired my April.

I am reading aloud a wonderful YA novel in verse called House Arrest to my sixth grade students. They are completely engaged in the short, poetic journal entries that make up Timothy’s story, and it will be a good way to bring us to the end of the school year, which seems ever so near and yet so far away. (Unlike all of my college professor friends, I do NOT finish teaching at the end of the month – June 6 for me. Keep me in your thoughts…)

And this week has brought GPN – good poetry news, for those not in the know. A poem of which I am quite fond is featured in the newest issue of Juxtaprose here. And another poem is in the current issue of Poet Lore, one of the first journals I started to read and aspire to when I came back to writing seriously around 25 years ago. It has been a while since any new work has appeared in print or online for me, so it feels like coming home.

I do have to say it’s a little embarrassing to have other bloggers continuously link back to the post where the Revival Bloggers are listed when I hadn’t posted anything in two weeks. Some ringleader I am.  But this is about writing, right? And I HAVE been doing that.

Rekindling

“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals, and I try to ignore the rest.”

This quote, attributed to Venus Williams, is a good summary of my writing mantra for this year. I spent a lot of time last year mired in doubt about my writing. Why was I bothering? So many talented people out there (many of them SO much younger than me) writing pieces that absolutely take my breath away. Like this one by John Murillo. The more I read, the more discouraged I became. I decided to take a step back and see if taking a break from writing poems would help. It did. For a while.

I did other things – wrote reviews, pecked away at an outline for a YA novel, and read SO many books. And when I sat down and tried to write again, one of two things occurred–I was surprised that something of quality showed up on the page, or I nearly wept over the drivel that found its way there. And then I attended the Poetry Carnival at Butler University in mid-August (organized by Kaveh Akbar) and some kind of spark was rekindled. A whole day of readings and workshops and people who love poems. And caramel apples and popcorn and conversation and photo booths. An exercise in a workshop with Ron Villanueva that yielded what is not yet a working poem but something that made me FEEL like a writer. And since then, the poems have started to arrive again –more slowly, perhaps, and with more difficulty. But they are there.

This sense of community, that feeling that I am a part of a larger literary conversation, is something that I seem to need from time to time. Something I hope to rekindle through this blog as well as through making time for these types of events in my life. So, in two days, I will be off to the east coast to start my writing year at The Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. Its company of writers, amazing setting, and focus on generating new work have been a jump start for me the many years that I have attended in the past, and I’m certain this year will not disappoint.

Emari DiGiorgio, in a workshop there two years ago, discussed the idea of making writing plans, setting goals (short or long-term) that made your writing life a priority. I tried it for a while and, like so many other things, it fell by the wayside. But, starting January 1st, I began again. In a blank journal (I love paper journals and only type after things are drafted in pen first…), I listed the dates January 1-8 and three goals:

  1. Write three-four drafts. (I was traveling & knew I would have significant down time.)
  2. Read and write a post about Rocket Fantastic by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
  3. Read & take notes on two poetry books I am reviewing.

That’s it. Brief. Practical. As I achieved each goal, I checked it off (very satisfying). At the end of the week, I commented on each draft (lousy & weird, keeper, questionable, something there), and listed any other writing-related news for the week. For me, that was a long list for the new year:

  • My review of Avery M. Guess’s The Patient Admits from dancing girl press went live at Crab Fat Magazine.
  • Issue Five of Ovenbird Poetry, which I guest-edited with Darren Demaree, also went live.
  • I had a poem (one that came from that initial rekindling in August) accepted by a journal I admire.
  • I updated the Blog Revival list, which has turned into a full-time job. As of today, the list of poet bloggers returning to the medium numbers over 90, and the post containing the list has been viewed over 1000 times!

Focusing on small goals in this way, I hope to keep a more consistent writing practice this year, one that celebrates the words that ring with possibility and one that recognizes & lets go the words that only sing dirges.

First Reads: Rocket Fantastic

In the claustrophobic space of a airline seat, I opened a book and was transported to a panoramic world.  Stag & fox, love & desire, tenderness & demand. The major general & the bandleader, the angel & the location, the neck & and the twang. It was an oddly-wonderful place for a first reading of Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, a collection that I will certainly return to for a much deeper investigation. But even on first read, I was immediately struck by four “practices” or “devices” (for lack of more intelligent terms):

The repetition of not only images and key words/terms, but repetition of exact lines in utterly new contexts. I have read many collections where images cycle, but I don’t recall any in recent memory that have used the same lines.This practice, which happens a few times in the book, worked for me like an echo, bouncing a voice or idea  back to me in a way that was both familiar and disconcerting, like motifs in a symphony where the key has changed from major to minor.

The form-switching throughout the collection. Some poems are structured in “traditional” stanzas, some spread across the page with large and purposeful white space, and some are in prose blocks. Each form seems perfectly suited for its inhabitants and its purpose, choices that I want to learn from in terms of choosing the most organic forms for my own poems.

The symbol that Calvocoressi has chosen to use as a genderless pronoun for one of the inhabitants of the poems (the Bandleader), which I do not know how to recreate on my keyboard, along with the use of “whose” as a substitute for the possessive and object pronouns usually associated with gender. The author describes the symbol as “a confluence of genders in varying degrees […] simultaneously encompassing and fluctuating.” At first I thought the symbol would be troublesome as a reader, but instead it allowed me to experience the poems in my own way instead of just the speaker’s.

The choices of proper titles for some of the inhabitants of the poems – the Bandleader, the Major General, the Dowager. Using these titles rather than names allowed me to bring my own preconceptions  and expectations about those words to the poems and then have them shattered, questioned, or twisted.

And these are just structural/craft matters that I want to explore! The content of the poems is also rich, textured & filled with the joy, pain, & longing of being human in a world that is at turns both beautiful and frightening. I usually know after a first read whether a book is one I will return to again and again. The answer here is definitely a resounding yes.

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You can follow Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Twitter at @rocketfantastic.

Her wonderful interview with Rachel Zucker on Commonplace Podcast can be found here

Purchase Rocket Fantastic here

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First Reads will hopefully be a regular feature here. I often write reviews for other venues which require multiple readings and copious notes, but I think that there is also merit in articulating first impressions as most of us don’t have the time to re-read books unless they speak to us in a way that calls us back.

 

2016 Reads:ABCs of Women’s Work by Kathleen Kirk

ABCsOfWomensWork

This is about literary community. And laziness. Yes, you read that correctly. Laziness. Since I read a good amount of poetry but really struggle to keep up with an online reading record (like Goodreads- I just can’t ever seem to remember to log things there)- I thought I would do my best to chronicle my reading here. (Since I also do not post here often enough, it will hopefully prod me to do that as well.)

My first delightful read of 2016 was Kathleen Kirk’s newest chapbook from Red Bird entitled The ABCs of Women’s Work, an abecedarian of sorts, with each poem starting with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. These poems address truths about the complex and beautiful ways that women work. Not work as in labor, although there is labor here. Not “women’s work” as in traditional gender roles. But the work of living.

It is difficult for me to choose a favorite, but Kirk has a magical way of weaving the familiar and the strange into song that is perfected in “Doorknob”:

It fell out onto the fiberglass
floor of the shower
right in the middle of my breast
*
self exam, my doorknob
of a heart. Loud, echoey bump
and clatter as when
*
the ritzy shampoo
my daughter uses falls off
the wet ledge.
*
Porcelain itself, and scallop
edged, it didn’t break.
Neither did the floor crack.
*
Everything went on as usual.
Dried my hair, tucked
the doorknob in a top drawer
*
under an embroidered
hankie from my grandmother.
I might have expected
*
emptiness. Or blood. Maybe a scar,
difficulty breathing?
But something keeps
(
opening, opening.
*
There is so much to admire in this poem. Let’s start with the line breaks. We have the line break on breast (making us imagine the worst we can imagine when we hear breast), then the break at doorknob (making us think the actual object has fallen), then the surprise of the metaphor for the heart.  Bump reechoes the panic of breast, and the line break of drawer connects through slant rhyme with scar, before the repetition of the final word. (Oh, that ending. More on that ending later.)
The poem then leads us through a generational lineage using domestic images (a daughter’s shampoo, a grandmother’s hankie). When the heart leaves the body in the poem, we assume some great “emptiness” – a death, a child leaving the home -and these are both possibilities. One would also medically expect damage -“…blood. Maybe a scar,/difficulty breathing.”  But what we have instead is a miraculous opening – and it can mean so many things.
A literal opening in the body where the heart has fallen out. An opening of the drawer where the heart is stored but cannot be held captive. But most importantly, an opening of doors, the purpose of doorknobs, after all; the heart that continues to open itself to change and possibility despite being ripped from the body.
Other highlights for me included the ekphrastic “Repose,” the quiet power of “Meditation in a Room of Women,” and the reflective “Funeral Flag.” Kirk is a talented writer and a tireless supporter of other poets, and her chapbook deserves your support.  You can click on the cover photo above to purchase from Red Bird Chapbooks.

Oh, Sun, I’m so grateful to you!

It was the perfect summer day here today (around 75 yet breezy), so I took every opportunity to run and walk and read and write and eat outside before sequestering myself for homework tonight. Plus today’s topic was conversation in poems, thus the line from Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” as a title, so there’s that. ( I could have used Crane’s line “Because it is bitter, And because it is my heart,” but that’s not really how I’m feeling today. )

I did a LOT of drafting – some stream of consciousness, some for the exercises given by our instructor, and some that was culled from random phrases in the small Moleskin I carry in my purse all year to pull out on occasions such as these when there is no particular “project” I am working on. I am enjoying these “experiments” – I’m not sure that they are poems at this point, but that can come later.

Trying to make it a point to read something other than poems while I’m here – yesterday’s wisdom came from Mark Strand’s essays – today, two of MANY underlined passages from Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle:

from “On Beginnings”:  “You might say a poem is a semicolon, a living semicolon, what connects the first line to the last, the act of keeping together that whose nature it is to fly apart.”

from “On Sentimentality”: “A good poem is seldom comfortable; either it vanquishes us with anguish or electrifies us with ecstasy or makes us pause and consider a new sense of the world or unravels us altogether, but never does it make us feel comfortable…”

I also started reading Interrobang by Jessica Piazza, and I am going to be re-reading this book many times. The use of form and rhyme is something I’ve been experimenting with more and more, and I think I have much to learn from this book. Plus the organizing principle is unique and clever. (And who can resist a sonnet crown? I mean, THREE different sonnet crowns?)

Tomorrow in class, we tackle Fernando Pessoa, which I tried to read carefully tonight, but it just made my brain hurt. (I’ll have to try again with fresh eyes in the morning…) Here’s hoping the family who was either smoking or cooking in their room last night (and kept setting off the smoke alarm in their room and waking up the whole floor as the desk clerk came up to reset it) has checked out and paid their “no smoking” room fines. Then I can get a good night’s sleep and be grateful for the sun again tomorrow.

*

Today’s Soundtrack:

  • Running: Kongos – Lunatic
  • Around town: Black Keys – Turn Blue and Kaiser Chiefs Education, Education, Education and War
  • Drafting – God is an Astronaut – All is Violent, All is Bright and Far from Refuge
  • Reading – A combination of Pandora’s Meditation Radio and background television noise from shows I care nothing about. (Dead silence at home is okay – in a hotel, when alone, it kind of freaks me out unless I’m going to sleep.)

 

 

There may be horribles; it’s hard to tell.

Some poets may recognize the title line from John Berryman’s “Snow Line,” one of the poems we read for class today. But I thought it was also appropriate as I try to write drafts to the exercises given by the instructor this week. When I write to exercises or prompts that are very specific, my old rule-follower instincts kick in and that is usually not a good sign for my poems.  So, there may be horribles this week. But it is hard to tell. At this point, I’ve drafted a poem about a valise (it’s a workable draft, but not sure that I’m into it), and tonight a poem about cottonwood fluff. Not two subjects I would have chosen otherwise. Of course, the poems are not JUST about those things, and at least everyone in the class is in the same boat of sharing brand new drafts at the start of class.

Just the first night and day that I’ve been away, and I feel like I have done a TON of reading and writing work. Did some online reading including the following:

Molly Spencer’s “Aubade with Transverse Orientation” at Heron Tree is gorgeous, gorgeous. Wow. Just like Molly! She is a talented poet and a lovely human being. Someone give her a prize and publish her manuscript, please.

New issue of Menacing HedgeI love this journal and love that they feature both audio of published poems and usually several poems by each writer. Featured in this issue are some lovely lyric beauties by Sandra Marchetti and some gut-wrenching (literally and figuratively) poems by Risa Denenberg.

I like to curl up at the public library here in Iowa City – comfy chairs, lots of light, perfect quiet and a well-stocked 808-813. I read and take notes from books I haven’t seen – today’s pick was Mark Strand’s book of essays A Weather of Words: Poetic Perfection. Some things to consider that stuck with me:

“Lyric poems (…) fix in language what is most elusive about experience and convince us of its importance and truth.” (His definition of the lyric and its functions and features is one of the clearest and best I’ve seen.)

On the endings of poems – they “release us back into the world with the momentary illusion that no harm has been done.” (They do, don’t they?)

“Something beyond knowledge compels our interest and ability to be moved by a poem.” (Duh. But YES!)

I also did my book purchasing for the week:

  • Madness, Rack and Honey by Mary Ruefle. I wasn’t going to buy my own copy as I have it on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did. I was underlining the introduction, for goodness sake.
  • Seam byTarfia Faizullah – recommended by a million people
  • Granted by Mary Szybist – earlier work
  • Interrobang by Jessica Piazza – also recommended by several friends
  • It is Daylight by Arda Collins – my instructor for this week.
  • What Light Can Do – by Robert Hass – essays on art and creativity

Whew. I also have some revision drafting on the agenda tonight. Going to try and “stitching” technique suggested by Tom Holmes of Redactions. There may be horribles. But there also may be delightfuls. It’s always hard to tell.

Today’s soundtrack:

  • Running – Jack White’s Lazaretto
  • About town (walking, lunch, etc.) – St. Vincent – St. Vincent
  • Reading – Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  • Drafting – White Noise. (seriously) & some soundtrack music from The Social Network, courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Good Reads

Not the website. (I know that I’m supposed to be active there, that it’s a good way to share your own reading as well as promote the books you write, but I can’t imagine having the time to manage ONE MORE THING online than I already am. As evidenced by my incredible neglect of this blog since spring.)

I’m talking about actual things I’ve read. Or heard read. It’s been a good week for that. Here are some things you may want to check out:

The new issue of Stirring: A LIterary Journal, featuring a devastating poem by Kami Westhoff called “Tiny Weapons.”

This incredible poem by Gabriella R. Tallmadge at The Dialogist. She is quick becoming one of my favorite poets. Someone give her a giant prize and publish her book, please.

The Road to Emmaus, the new book by Spencer Reece, who I was lucky enough to hear read at a special Rhino Poetry event at editor Ralph Hamilton’s home. Many of his poems are long (as the one linked here), and I feel I learned something from reading them about how to maintain a long, linked narrative.

The new issue of Poetry magazine featuring a dazzling array of poems I enjoyed, especially Traci Brimhall’s “Better to Marry than to Burn” (another of my favorite poets) and “Belief in Magic” by Dean Young, who just keeps getting better.

And, last but not least, finally a close read of The Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon. I always appreciate the realness of her poems. Although they are carefully crafted, they have a real voice. This book also deals with choosing the creative life and what that means in terms of family and how others perceive you, so it was a good choice for me right now.

In two days, I’ll be leaving for my week in Iowa City. I will post from there (daily, hopefully) since I will be free of life’s usual duties and trappings.